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News from an unknown universe

Inspecting the facts in science fiction

Sally-Ann Spencer 5 August 2006

Camoflage: real and almost-real science

In some respects The Swarm's environmental message is clear, but how easy is it to separate fact from fiction in a book that draws on the conventions of science fiction?

Author's note: Recently, I had the opportunity to translate, from English to German, a novel – part ecological thriller and part science fiction – that’s been much talked about in the ‘lab lit’ community: The Swarm, by Frank Schätzing. I’m not a scientist myself, but I got the chance to talk to a number of friendly scientists during the course of the project, and I learned a lot about topics such as parallel evolution, animal behaviour, marine biology and geoscience in the process. Of course as the book’s translator, it’s not appropriate for me to review the book formally, but as many of’s readers have been interested in hearing about it, I thought I’d share my impressions with you informally – about the book’s science, but also about the limitations of conveying science in what is essentially a fictional background.

Apocalypse wow! isn't generally the sort of tag line associated with scientific expositions about marine gas hydrates, deep-sea amoebas or oceanic currents. Then again, books about such subjects aren't usually turned into films. With The Swarm Frank Schätzing achieves the unlikely task of converting geophysics and microbiology into blockbuster material.

First published in 2004, Schätzing's science-inspired thriller dominated the bestseller lists in his native Germany for two years, with translations rights sold to seventeen countries. Its popularity is due in part to its rip-roaring plot: the story of environmental destruction opens with the disappearance of a lone Peruvian fisherman and soon develops into a catastrophe of global proportions. While Europe is inundated by a tsunami and whales rampage along the Canadian coast, a team of international scientists discovers a mysterious force at work in the oceans. The chaos is being caused by an alternative intelligent race, the yrr, an organized swarm of single-cell organisms. Can the scientists find out enough about the deep-sea aliens to return the planet to its ecological status-quo or will the military's gun-toting ethic prevail?

So far, so Hollywood. The cast of sexy scientists and the appearance of killer lobsters and marauding deep-sea predators make it easy to see why Uma Thurman and producers Ica and Michael Souvignier scooped up the movie rights. But the glamour and thrills of the apocalyptic storyline only account for part of the book's appeal (and no more than half of its 880 odd pages). The real strength of The Swarm is its science. The author spent four years researching his material, and it shows.

By his own admission, Schätzing was never a science buff at school. It wasn't until his mid-twenties that he discovered Hawking's A Brief History of Time and was blown away by the attempt to explain the universe using one equation and 'nothing but words'. Sixteen years and a self-imposed program of scientific reading later, he was inspired to write The Swarm – a novel that sets out to bring deep-sea science to the masses. His research was conducted in close collaboration with scientists who gave him access to their knowledge and the inside of their labs. Real-life hydrates expert Gerhard Bohrmann (currently of the University of Bremen) even appears as a character within the plot, playing a key role in deciphering and explaining the mysteries of the deep. A nasty encounter with a hammerhead shark notwithstanding, the geochemist is one of the few survivors at the end of the novel – surely a sign of authorial gratitude. Much of the novel is a similar blend of fiction and fact. The dramatic description of the European tsunami, for example, is based on a geological phenomenon that most recently occurred less than ten thousand years ago. Fluctuations in subsea temperature and pressure are thought to have caused layers of marine methane hydrates to dissociate, creating an enormous landslide and generating a tsunami that flooded coastal regions. Since the peak of the last ice age over 5500 cubic kilometres of seabed have been displaced from the Norwegian continental slope, and the possibility of future submarine landslides has not been excluded. All Schätzing does is throw in an army of methane-hungry archaebacteria to chomp through the hydrates and precipitate the slide. Many of the books deep-sea monsters are taken straight from reality. The Australian tourist board will be none too pleased with Schätzing's description of a box jellyfish plague. Capable of killing a human in less than four minutes, the notorious Chironex fleckeri is reputed to have caused a hundred deaths in as many years. Less toxic but more outlandish is the Portuguese-man-of-war, a collection of four types of polyp with a net of tentacles up to fifty meters long. The notion of a colony of organisms equipped with minuscule harpoon-like stinging cells is disturbing enough without further embellishment. The biofouling threat posed by Schätzing's zebra mussels, though, is accentuated by the addition of flagella. With the ability to propel themselves through the water and steer their course, the mutant zebra mussels are able to block pipes and infest waterworks more rapidly and efficiently than their real-life counterparts.

In the novel biological plagues and species mutations are engineered by the yrr, but, as Schätzing points out, humankind is achieving roughly the same effect unaided. Ordinary flagella-less zebra mussels have been imported from the Caspian Sea to the Great Lakes in North America, where they can be found in densities of over 700,000 per square meter. Jellyfish plagues may not have reached the proportions described in The Swarm, but transoceanic shipping has been responsible for ferrying some dangerous stowaways, such as the Australian spotted jellyfish that wreaked havoc among Mississippi fish stocks in 2000.

Perhaps the yrr's most impressive achievement, though, is the disruption of the Gulf Stream. The initial trigger – a pipeline of water from a subsea volcano – may be sci-fi-esque, but the basic mechanism is borrowed from environmental research: an influx of melt water lowers the water density, stopping the 'chimneys' of cold water from plummeting to the depths and leading to the shut-down of the North Atlantic pump. According to the UK's National Oceanography Centre, the Gulf Stream is weakening, even without the yrr. Indeed, unlike Michael Crichton, whose recent novel State of Fear poured ice-cold water on the link between climate change and human activity, Schätzing takes a dim view of human intervention in the ecosystem. The yrr may be orchestrating the campaign of marine disaster, but human thoughtlessness and selfishness are essentially to blame. The attack of the yrr is a protest against pollution, radioactive dumping, overfishing, whaling, low frequency sonar, the oil industry and so forth. It seems reasonable to assume that Schätzing won't be following Crichton in winning the American Association of Petroleum Geologists' journalism award. In some respects The Swarm's environmental message is clear, but how easy is it to separate fact from fiction in a book that draws on the conventions of science fiction? On a practical level a group of German tourists certainly drew the right conclusions when they escaped from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami after identifying the warning signs from Schätzing's precise descriptions. In a more technical sense, though, the matter is less clear-cut, prompting the author to write a non-fiction follow-up, News From an Unknown Universe, an expansive guide to the science of The Swarm.

Of course science itself is continually being rewritten, and some of the novel's 'facts' will doubtless be reassessed. Pfiesteria piscicida is a case in point. 'Killer algae' play a deadly role in the yrr's land-bound plagues, but their toxicity is now a matter of dispute. Conversely, the idea of the yrr – a conglomerate of intelligent single-cell organisms – may seem far-fetched, but Schätzing's deep-sea aliens are not dissimilar to some of the beings described in the National Geographic Channel's Extraterrestrial documentary, in which astrobiologists and evolutionary scientists present their theories about possible forms of alien life. In any case, as Schätzing reminds us, the bottom of the ocean is a rich and largely unexplored environment. A single millilitre of seawater contains the equivalent of two kilometres of DNA molecules, 310 kilometres of proteins and 5600 kilometres of polysaccharides. Maybe an intelligent race is down there, but we haven't found it yet.